David Langfitt’s debut novel, Winnabow, is a thriller set in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina, that follows lawyer Peyton Sorel on a securities case that leads her into conflict against a fixer for a South American drug cartel. He recently visited the Avalon Library to talk about his book, and was also gracious enough to answer some questions for our Q&A column.
What would you most like people to know about your book, Winnabow?
That it’s a fast paced thriller about good and evil, and the last half of the book will make the reader want to crawl under the bed for safety.
What inspired you to write it?
The things I do every day as a lawyer and the complex nature of the Cape Fear River. Years ago I worked to recover hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of investors who were defrauded by a Ponzi scheme. The misuse of a legitimate business for criminal purposes was fascinating to see. We picked it apart and exposed its inner workings. The experience was disturbing and informative about how the human mind can come up with these schemes. As a setting, Wilmington and Cape Fear are unique. Wilmington is the biggest port in North Carolina and divided by a river. On one side is the city with antebellum streets and mansions, all of which are exquisite. On the other side is the wilderness of Brunswick County, where people can get lost if they aren’t careful. My wife Margaret has her feet on both sides of the river. It’s dramatic all by itself.
What do you feel brought this thriller to life?
Plot, pacing, and characters. The narrative is a simple story of good and evil, but set in complicated modern times. It begins with two seemingly disparate stories that converge and tighten into a braid. Along the way, the reader is introduced to Leandro Dufau [the drug cartel fixer] as he moves through Wilmington and Cape Fear, and Peyton, whose own investigation leads her to Leandro. It’s pretty clear around page 100 that this will be a serious collision. As the narrative develops, the nature and motivations of the two characters are revealed. Both are extraordinarily talented and driven, but poles apart in fundamental ways. Leandro is, I suppose, a sociopath and unrestrained by any sense of morality; he’s getting his work done at any cost. Peyton is an upright lawyer and mother of two, who is unimpressed by men who would oppose her. She knows exactly what to do and when to do it. Leandro and Peyton are an incendiary mix.
You go into so much detail about specific subjects. How do you know so much about them?
When we helped pick apart a Ponzi scheme years ago, we learned a lot about money-laundering, bank fraud, and a certain kind of white-collar crime. We worked with a former IRS forensic accountant who is in the book; he’s really smart and advises Peyton Sorel on what she is facing and where the investigation should go. As to the drug business, I based it somewhat on what I’ve read of the drug transport business of Carlos Leder and George Jung in the 1970s and 1980s. Mostly, they flew from Medellín, Columbia, to Norman’s Cay in the Bahamas, and then into the Southern states. That was an inspiration. But the business as I’ve written it is largely my own creation.
What’s the strangest thing you have ever had to research for a book?
The effects of having pieces of cornea removed forcibly from the eye.
What are you working on now?
The sequel, titled The Sixth Man, which is set in New York and North Africa.
Also, a short novel titled The Kotonu, which is the name of a slave ship. It is set in 1723 London and the Caribbean and is about a Royal Navy Commander who is hired to search for a missing 11 year old boy whose ship and family were lost at sea, most likely from an attack by the Kotonu, now commanded by mutineers.
What are you reading?
Good Kids, Bad City, about a wrongful conviction for murder in Cleveland, Ohio.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading?
Fiction and non fiction. Well-done thrillers.
Which do you avoid?
What are you listening to?
Everything popular from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 2000s.
Do you remember the first story you ever read and the impact it had on you?
Yes, Androcles and the Lion, translated into an American popular children’s book called Andy and the Lion. One of the best ever.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Where is your favorite place to write?
Which of your characters do you think you could be good friends with?
Ted Heilman, who is a real person, Peyton Sorel, who is based on my wife, and Robert Sandhurst, who is based on a nephew of mine who served in the US Special Forces.
What’s something you are really good at that few people know about?
I’m a good painter (fine arts, that is), but largely inactive.
When you’re writing, do you have everything carefully plotted out or do you just let the material come to you?
Some basic stuff has to be plotted out, but a lot develops as a chapter or character moves forward, and parts of the plot change and move with the characters. But the arc of the story is pretty well sketched out in my head before anything gets written.
Do you rewrite passages over and over or are you generally pretty happy with what you’ve written after the first time or two?
Every single word and sentence is rewritten at least twenty times over. Until I have sixty to 100 pages done, complete, and near-perfect, nothing is satisfying at all.
Is there anything you’ve edited out of a book that you really wish you had left in?
I’ve edited so much in and out of Winnabow and the drafts of the other two books that I cannot remember.
What is your favorite thing about being an author? Your least favorite?
I’m very pleased with the results of Winnabow. I don’t have anything that is a least favorite thing, except possibly the long struggle to make the writing and the story right. That takes time and long mornings and nights.
Did you visit the library a lot growing up? Do you now?
Yes, but mostly the libraries in my mother’s and father’s home. They had a ton of books.
Which writers have inspired you the most?
In the thriller genre, Fredrick Forsyth, the author of the The Day of the Jackal, stands out. To this day, the narrative, pacing and writing of that novel are remarkable. Forsyth wrote it from his experience as a journalist covering the Biafran civil war in Nigeria. There, he met English mercenaries who became the basis for the book. The second writer is Thomas Harris who wrote The Silence of the Lambs. What I admire most is his clean writing style and pacing; it’s as if he is speaking to the reader, and we never want him to stop. The language flows like water. It never gets in the way of the story.
What book do you wish everyone would read?
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, two or three times. It never gets old, and the adventure is chilling.